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Hours after reading your recent response to Latchkey, my mind is still reeling with variations and extensions to your light bulb riff: How do you do it?
I meant overcoming denial and seeing what’s there. I used the light metaphor because I didn’t want to hound poor Latchkey with psychobabble, though I consider denial a brain function on par with memory or planning, even if it was named by psychologists. In this I’m influenced by V.S. Ramachandran’s incredible Phantoms in the Brain, especially the mind-blowing chapter “The Sound of One Hand Clapping,” which discusses a stroke-induced denial called anosognosia. Anosognosia patients will deny the effects of their stroke (paralysis), despite ample evidence to the contrary (a wheelchair). Ramachandran does all sorts of clever experiments with these patients to bolster the idea that denial is something our brains evolved to do, whether we encourage them or not. I love this book! Before I read it, I didn’t think of myself as a Big Denier. “I know plenty of deniers, I am not one of them”; like that. But after Ramachandran, I knew I had to be a denier, and saw a lot. I could recalled denying specific things, and remembered how I did it. The lights went up. It was weird, and it made me sad, but that’s how I know it’s possible.
Here’s my theory: we’ve evolved brains that are good at ignoring information detrimental to our survival. Most of this information has to do with belonging to a group, despite the non-group promoting behavior of other people: lying, stealing, screwing, raging, sundry destroying. That’s why most denial is social and pertains to people you need to be close to, like family and lovers and close friends, and why sometimes the things you deny they do are pretty fucking unacceptable.
So if you want to turn on the lights in your own life, look at your family and friends. Consider: lying, drinking, adultery, boy/girlfriend-stealing, betrayal, and crime. Have they done any? Sometimes little instances come to mind but the bigger ones have receded, or you may have made light of them, or said everybody does it, or decided that a certain thing (Dad drinking fourteen drinks and singing funny songs) is charming in its own way, or just sort of not thought about it for a long time. If you can remember a little lie, try to think: what else have they lied about? If they acted odd, when else did they act like that? Was there a first time? The first time is the most upsetting, and it could be the time you first decide to let it slip into the dark.
But wait: why would you even want to look at your family and friends like this? Good question. You probably don’t. That’s why it works—you have a good reason for not wanting to dwell on this shit. Shit is shitty. Knowing that your best friend is a criminal and your father is an adulterer is repulsive; knowing that your mother is unhappy (like Latchkey’s) is also horrible, or that your boyfriend is a dork or less interesting than you (like Not Sure, above), or that your yourself are a dork or are too accommodating to boys or are lonely, is also awful. Or thinking about how we’re all going to die (I forgot to mention the subset of sickness-death denial), or how someone you know is very ill and miserable, and young, and will die, but not for a long time, and it can happen to you, is crushing. Why would you want to know? You don’t have to. It might not do anything for you. But I believe skepticism is a healthy habit. Whole groups ignore the truth too, societies—if you look at the history of the 20th century, there are plenty of instances where seeing others clearly was the best way to survive. At the very least, it can tell you when to run.
If you decide you want to look, here are some of the ways people reveal the nasty truth about themselves. 1) They clearly state the facts, hoping you’ll tell them they’re wrong or accept them anyway. But they’re not wrong (e.g.: “I am a pathetic drunk,” “I’m incapable of a relationship,”). 2) They express themselves in wishes that are the opposite of the truth. People in unhappy relationships trumpet their happiness; insecure people list their accomplishments, liars protest their innocence. Very common. 3) They criticize others for the having the same faults they have themselves: people who cheat say how much they hate cheaters, liars hate lying, etc. 4) They continually and emphatically state the truth of something about themselves—intelligence, prowess—despite ample evidence to the contrary. My favorite!
This nice story is a combination of #’s 1 and 4. At a private high school where my friend worked, one of the English teachers was always going on about his PhD in literature, making his students call him Doctor, and driving everyone crazy with his pretentiousness. He had done this for years. One day my friend taught for him and was stunned by the stupidity of his lesson plan, which involved memorizing the titles of books rather than reading them. But it took a new hire, a gay guy—who probably had experience with guys who said they were straight but dated him anyway—to realize that something was off. He was so certain that he checked the teacher’s credentials and found that he did not have a PhD. He’d been lying for years!
The part I love most about that story when the new guy decides to check the doctor's credentials. Because a lot of our lives can be verified now; you don't have to rely on pure acumen. In Latchkey's case, she could talk to family members or her parents’ friends—that would probably turn up a lot. She could play Second Life with her mother. She could read her mother’s email, or her father’s—I don’t mean secretly, I mean she could ask, and they might say yes; I’m not sure why, but people do that. Or she could snoop. Or she could just ask her parents flat out, in the most direct, mature way she could think of, which might work. Or it might not. All these ways, it seems to me, provide ample opportunity for disappointment. Not to mention disillusionment. But in a way, that’s the point.
discuss the usage of metaphor in Eva Sallis' novel The Marsh Birds
In Eva Sallis' novel The Marsh Birds, metaphor is used as it is in every novel, which is to say that since everything is made up, everything is a metaphor: every image, every detail, every character. The house is not a house. The character is not a person. It's like a dream: everything is spun from the mind of the dreamer--or if you're a Jungian, you might say everything is spun from the collective experience of mankind. That's what literature is, a narrative made up of metaphors. I haven't read The Marsh Birds, but I'm pretty sure this applies.
Now go do your homework.
How am I supposed to feel about my aging parents getting divorced? One day, out of the clear blue sky, after 30 years of a good, loving marriage to the greatest guy I know, never any fighting or stuff like that, my mom gets botox, starts playing second life all the time, and decides she resents my father for a million things she never once brought up and leaves him. She's 60. Can you tell me, what was she thinking? Can this happen to anyone? How can you trust anyone? Is it reasonable for me to believe in lasting love from this point forward? Do women just go mad after menopause? Is this sort of condition preventable? How do I help them?
Latchkey, you're killing me! I'm going to dive into the the most heartbreaking part. Q:“How can you trust anyone? ” A: You can't. Q. “Is it reasonable for me to believe in lasting love from this point forward?” A. No. Q.“Can this happen to anyone?” A: Yes. Q: “Is this sort of condition preventable?” No! No! Latchkey! Your parents skipped an important parenting step, the part where they systematically disappoint and disillusion you for years with escalating intensity, in order to indoctrinate you into the existential truth of the human condition. This usually starts with things like giving you cake when you wanted ice cream and outing Santa Claus, moving on to fighting behind closed doors while you beg for them to stop, criticizing each other at the dinner table and calling you a stupid idiot when you try to do math, culminating in social anxiety by proxy in high school, when they should have been dishing out hurtful comments about your physical appearance and sexual orientation, and, if everything was on schedule, begun making inappropriate revelations about their personal lives.
I'm sorry that they failed you in this way! Though I guess it was sweet of them to want to protect you from all the bad stuff. They tried really hard too, since you've been able to see them in a warm light for thirty years, and that makes me think they must love you very much. But now you're thirty, the planet's dying, so let's unscrew those warm incandescent bulbs and look at this under the glare of compact fluorescence. Relationships involve fighting. It's extremely difficult to get along with another person for years—fully, in an alive way—without disagreements. You were missing something, and your parents probably helped you miss it. But it was there. If you're truly convinced there was no fighting, I'd guess that one of two things was going on: 1) your parents, out of love for you, managed to shield you from their fights, or 2) one of your parents accommodated the other so skillfully that most fighting was avoided.
It's usually the woman who does the accommodating. This involves a certain amount of self-effacement, which almost causes resentment. Which leads me to your next question: "What was she thinking?" A: It's three things, probably a little of each: resentment, sexuality, mortality.
Resentment: your mom gave too much and got sick of it. Women tend to hold families together emotionally, even when the dads are great guys (and great dads aren't the same as great husbands). Sometimes the kids don't see it, and you've had the incandescent lights on, softly dimmed, for a while. But sometimes women sacrifice parts of themselves until they just can't do it anymore. They just can't. They feel emptied out.
Sexuality: I'm sure you don't want the details, so I'll spare you speculations. But it's entirely possible that your parents have a bad sex life. I know it probably doesn't seem like it, but old people are just like young ones, full of roiling emotions and longings. These may not be quite as urgent as they once were, but they're still a major engine driving human history, even the history of sixty year-old moms.
Mortality: Your mother turned sixty and realized that she's going to die, die, really die—full of resentment, with a shitty sex life, giving up parts of herself to her family—and she didn't want to go on living that way until she just died.
She wants a second life. That's the clearest answer of all—the one you gave yourself. But really, of course, I don't know what she's thinking. Why don't you ask her?
As for what you should do to help them, the best thing you can do is to try to stay on good terms with both of them, without taking sides. It's impossible to know what really goes on in another couple's relationship. I know you feel angry and betrayed, and I don't blame you, but I'm sure your mother had a good reason for leaving your dad. She's been so nice for so long—how could it not be a good reason? It just might be a grown-up human reason, a soul-based reason, a sexual reason—and it's going to be hard for you to see this in her, given that they've kept this side of themselves away from you for so long. But if you really want to see, you can see. You can brighten the lights and look.
Recently, I've been reading your movie reviews from the 90's. In the review for "The Truman Show," you dropped some Lacanian lit-theory on our asses. This invites the questions, "What are your thoughts on literary theory, in general?" "Has your view on it changed over time?" "Has it affected/informed/enhanced/etc. your work? How so?"
I hope this online query finds you well. :)
By the way, when you dropped that Lacan on us, I was all like "Awwwww sheeeeeeeeut, son! S-Ricky is FIRE!"
You don't even know, grrrl!
Hi Liam. Thanks for reading my film reviews! You're nice, especially since I had to write some of them so quickly that I was pulling a lot of crap out of, I don't know, my ass? I have mixed feelings about literary theory in general. At its best, it's smart and fun. I like ideas, and I like ideas about ideas. I like thought, and I like thoughts about thought. But I don't think it has much to do with literature. Rather, it is its own thing, with its own system of thought, and while it has plenty of merits, I'm not sure it needs literature to exist. Which is fine, I guess, but I don't know why literary theory needs English departments.
But I also kind of hate literary theory because most of it is written in a style that's absolutely impossible to read. I know that complicated thoughts can be expressed clearly and without jargon, without nouns turned into verbs and "to be sure's" and paragraphs that have their point buried in a subordinate clause. That smart people have collectively abandoned clarity enrages me. That this kind of writing has become customary in academic circles enrages me. What kind of person writes, say Marxist criticism that condemns elitism, in an elite dialect that can only be understood by other academics? It's retarded. Plus no one else has access to their ideas, unless they wish to be tortured by language. They're like priests saying the mass in Latin. It has a kind of aura. But only other priests can really get it.
What literary type magazines do you like? I know you list a few, but what others?
Hi Maddy, I haven't forgotten you...I just want to do a little research to give you a better list. I'm not the greatest person to ask about literary magazines because I don't teach, and therefore I'm not as dialed in to all the great new stuff. I like Willow Springs, Fairy Tale Review, The Mississippi Review, Tin House, Zoetrope, and The Sonora Review, but I'll bet there are other great journals I don't know about. I'm going to ask a friend who's up on it and try to e x p a n d.
Excuse me but WE ask the questions around here! I helped make the video, but a guy named Derek from Oklahoma did the shooting/editing, etc. Drugs? That's not really the point. There will be no rave dancing! This is more a worlds fair type thing (at least that's the intention...
Hi Stacey. You are the best author I have come across in a long time by far. I LOVE your books. Do you have plans to write any more anytime soon? If not, what authors do you like and would recommend to someone who likes your style of writing?
Thanks, Miranda. I'm writing a novel now but it probably won't be out for a while.
As for my style of writing, it's sort of weird how I don't even know exactly what it is--I think it's like having an accent, it's hard to recognize your own. But off the top of my head, some great writers who write funny-strange short stories are Kelly Link, Amy Bender, George Saunders, and Karen Russell. But there are so many more!
Hi Stacey! Do you remember a question I asked a while back, filled with worry about the state of the country and how little stock people put in things like science? Well, I've found a project I'm helping out with called "Re Evolution". I'm working in the Production/Logistics department and I couldn't be happier! You should check out our Kickstarter page! http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/732325194/re-evolution What do you think of it?
Cool! I love robots on fire. Did you make that great film?
I sincerely hope you're planning to have a bowl of drugs by the entrance door.
Hi Stacey, Could you talk a little bit about finding an agent? I think the story is that one found you (you told me this years ago, in some other context) but in general, how does that go about happening?
Yes, I got a letter from my agent, so she basically found me. It was weirdly easy. Honestly Incog, I have no idea how to go about finding an agent. But since I have male answer syndrome, I'll throw out some suggestions. You could ask someone who teaches in an MFA program--they probably know what some of their students did. You could ask our oracle, Google. You could call an agent's office, be nice to their assistant, and ask how a person goes about finding an agent. You could go to the library and see what kind of info you find there.
Which currently-alive/-relevant (so, Abe Vigoda doesn't count) celebrities do you have the biggest crush on? Pick at least 1 from each sex, please.
Explain you answer.
Your loving interrogator,
Someone who is NOT you
P...S... This also isn't Liam. No way.
Okay. Boys: Tom Hardy, because he's got all that sexy charisma. Clive Owen, because he loves me, I'm pretty sure. Sacha Baron Cohen, because I'm just so right for him. Tiger Woods, because he sounds like fun and I want to have Ambien sex.
Girls: Britney Spears, because it's fun to have sex with crazy people and I love her weird wide-eyed face. And Megan Fox: no explanation required.